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The series of large earthquakes that hit Kumamoto Prefecture and surrounding areas since mid-April have caused extensive damage, killing dozens of people and destroying or damaging more than 80,000 houses and buildings. One month on, emergency responses have been carried out and local public services gradually restored, and the government’s ¥778 billion extra budget is set to kick in soon to facilitate reconstruction. The Kumamoto temblors also highlight a need to accelerate long-advocated efforts to improve the quake-resistance of houses and other structures to minimize the loss of lives in such disasters.

In some ways, the Kumamoto quakes defied conventional wisdom based on Japan’s modern experience with major temblors. Contrary to the typical pattern of a big temblor followed by a series of aftershocks in declining intensity and frequency, the first magnitude-6.5 quake that hit Kumamoto on the evening of April 14 — registering a maximum 7 on the Japanese seismic intensity scale — was followed by a much more powerful magnitude 7 temblor in the early hours of April 16 that increased the damage and greatly expanded the areas hit by the quakes. The aftershocks still continue, with the total number of quakes topping 1,400 since the first one struck.

More than half the 49 people killed by the quakes were either crushed or suffocated when their houses collapsed. In the 1995 Great Hanshin Earthquake that severely damaged Kobe and surrounding areas, the cause of death was the same for 80 percent of the more than 6,000 victims. The 1995 catastrophe led to calls for making houses more quake-proof to save lives. But in Mashiki, Kumamoto Prefecture, which is close to the epicenter of the quakes and suffered the most extensive damage, half the houses were destroyed. Most of these had been built before the Building Standards Law were updated in 1981 and damage was concentrated in structures that had not undergone additional work to bolster their resistance to quakes.

The 1981 amendment was designed to ensure that houses and structures built to the new standard would withstand temblors registering 6 or 7 on the Japanese intensity scale. The law was amended again in 2000 to tighten the standard even further. In Mashiki, however, some houses built after the turn of the century were destroyed — including some that survived the first April 14 quake only to collapse in the April 16 temblor. This outcome must be scrutinized to see whether the problem lies in the way the houses were built or in the standard itself.

Kumamoto hasn’t been lagging far behind other prefectures in its efforts to improve housing quake-resistance. A 2013 government estimate shows that 76 percent of houses in Kumamoto have been made quake-resistant, compared with the national average of 82 percent. The latter has been gradually improving, but the government’s target of making 95 percent of houses quake-resistant by 2020 still seems far out of reach.

The government sees such efforts as crucial to reducing loss of life in anticipated major earthquakes, including the dreaded big one that is expected to strike on the Nankai Trough off the Pacific coast. A measure taken after the 1995 Hanshin quake offers public subsidies to homeowners to help cover the cost of making their properties quake-resistant, but these efforts should be promoted by, for example, increasing national government funding for such work.

The Kumamoto quakes also exposed the vulnerability of public facilities, including municipal government structures and hospitals. Several local government buildings in Kumamoto— which were built in the 1970s and supposed to serve as command centers for emergency operations in times of disasters — were rendered unusable by the temblors.

Here again, the Kumamoto municipalities are not unique — many local government buildings across Japan remain vulnerable to big temblors because reconstruction and repairs to make them quake-proof has been delayed as such work on schools and other public facilities has been given higher priority under tight fiscal conditions. According to a survey by the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry, only 75 percent of municipal government buildings throughout the country are made to withstand powerful quakes.

The situation does not seem much better for hospitals. The 450-bed Kumamoto City Hospital was damaged by the quakes and its 300 inpatients had be moved to their homes and other institutions. A Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry survey last year of roughly 8,500 hospitals across Japan reportedly showed that only slightly less than 70 percent of them had made all of their facilities quake-resistant. Some 850 hospitals, or about 10 percent of the total, said they have facilities that don’t meet quake-proof standards, including some that would serve as emergency rescue centers and primary medical institutions that treat the injured round-the-clock in times of major disasters. About 20 percent of the hospitals replied that they were not sure whether their buildings were quake-proof.

Efforts to make crucial public facilities quake-proof will take time and immense funding. But such steps need to be taken quickly as the Kumamoto quakes have reminded us that earthquakes can hit anytime, anywhere in this country — and in ways that can defy past experiences.

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